A Journey to the Past of America - 2
By N asim Hassan
It is spring. There was a snowfall here only last month. Then very silently, the spring came. One bright morning when I looked out of the window, I saw the white blossom on a small plum tree in my backyard. In one week the whole area has changed. There is color bursting all over. White, pink and yellow dominate the landscape. The green leaves are trying to emerge. The white and pink blossom on dogwood, pear and cherry trees looks as if they are decorated to welcome the spring season. The Mid Atlantic region of the US has a very sharp change of seasons. In this area every season comes in with a full force and then gradually moves on.
Amish country in Pennsylvania
The old country road leading to Lancaster Pennsylvania has all the colors. The houses in this area are both old and new. The old houses have a front porch as in southern towns and the new housing developments have all kinds of styles. The landscape has changed. You can see far into the fields and spot something like a warehouse.
This area called Avondale is adjacent to the mushroom capital ( Kennett Square) of the US. The warehouse- like buildings have big piles of spent mushroom soil. The people in this area came from Southern Europe and still maintain the character of a farming community. Something in American character has a pioneering spirit. As the city expands, the Americans like to move away from urban sprawl. After sometime, the national grocery chains follow the population and then Burger King and McDonalds push their way in. People who want calm, quiet and pollution-free life drive 20-50 miles to work adding to pollution. Avondale is a small town that still maintains its country character. I can hear Latin music and a little ahead on the left side is a Mexican restaurant named El Sombrero. A few people are sitting outside. The Hispanic population in the Avondale area started as a migrant worker community. Gradually they have put down their roots in this area and most of them still work on farms. I stop at El Sombrero to pick up snacks and soda.
The pace of life is slow in this area. There are farms on both sides of Route 41. There is a Dutch Man super market. I stop in and walk around the store. Everything looks familiar; however, the store has quilts and a number of small household items made by Amish families. The patterns are simple and the design looks like early European. I have come to the intersection of Route 3, the city of Philadelphia lies east and Lancaster to the west. I make a left turn to go to Lancaster. I have heard a lot about the Amish villages in this area. Amish people living in this area do not use any modern machines. They do not have telephones or televisions in their homes. They still use horse-driven carriages and plow their field with mules and horses. Amish women still wear long dresses and cover their heads with scarves. The men do not trim their beards or shave their mustaches. Except for their early European style dresses, these people have perfect Islamic dresses.
As I continue west on Route 30, I pass a number of motels on both sides and country style restaurants. A sign beckons me to visit Amish village a few miles down the road. I immediately decide that I must see this place. I park my car and I have to buy a ticket to get in. There is a lady tour guide who takes me through a make-believe Amish village and narrates how Amish people live. I do not understand why I have to see a make-believe Amish village when I can see the real people. A little distance away there is a gift shop with all kinds of small gift items. I take a small vase that has a logo stating "Buy American". At the bottom, it reveals that it was made in Korea. Further down I see a large shopping center that has all name brand outlet stores. At this point, I decide to take a small country road to see whether these Amish people still exist or everything has been commercialized. This road is small and the speed limit is down to 35 mph.
I continue for few miles and see a black horse-driven carriage coming from a side road. I slow down and follow the carriage. It goes a little distance and then turns into a small alley leading to a farmhouse. The Amish people do not encourage me to talk to them or watch them. They make a sign to me indicating I should go away.
Now I am in Amish Country. I decide to go around the area and observe these people from a distance without disturbing them. I see simple houses with cloth lines. I see farmers plowing their fields with mules. I see women in their long dresses with white caps on their heads. I see children playing around dressed with suspenders. Now I can believe these people do not use tractors, cars, electricity, phones or any modern amenities. The small villages in the Lancaster area are not exclusively Amish. The other people also own farms in between Amish farmhouses. But Amish Christians always shun other people and maintain a simple lifestyle.
The concept of home and family is very strong in Amish communities. The men wear wide brimmed hats and trousers with suspenders. The women have a simple dress dating back to seventeenth century Europe. Most of the Amish people are farmers. Some members take up other professions such as carpentry or blacksmithing that cater to the needs of the community. All generations including parents, grandparents and children live together. There are Amish communities in 20 states including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. The Amish do not believe in receiving Federal aid. While they pay taxes they are exempt from social security.
The origin of Amish people has been traced to the Christian reform movement in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525 called Anabaptism (second baptism). In 1536, a Dutch Catholic priest Menno Simmons joined this movement and his followers were called Mennonites. During the next century the Mennonites were persecuted in Switzerland and Germany by state-run churches. The Mennonites settled in the Netherlands, Germany and moved down the Rhine River into the West Bank area called Palatinate. The Mennonites wanted to follow the bible and live a simple religious life not controlled by state. As the seventeenth century came to close, a Swiss elder in Mennonite church named Jacob Amman emphasized social avoidance (shunning) against the people who left the church or refused to confess their sins. In 1694, Jacob Amman broke away from the Mennonites and his followers came to be called Amish.
In 1681, in Pennsylvania, the Englishman William Penn encouraged religious tolerance because he had seen religious persecution first-hand as a Quaker. The Mennonites and the Amish people started to migrate to America to avoid religious persecution. In 1737, a few Amish families settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Amish church does not seek new members. When the Amish children are in their teens or early twenties, they have to decide whether or not to join the church. The members who leave the Amish church or marry an outsider get shunned. The other members are then not allowed to buy or sell things from that person. The ban is a powerful instrument for keeping the church intact.
Amish people use a Swiss- German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch at home. The Amish population continued to grow in this area and moved west to other states. There are about 125,000 Amish living in the US but there is no Amish community in Europe. The existing Amish community in Lancaster area has survived since 1737.
After going around the small villages of Vintage, Souder burg, Lampeter, I reach the village of Strasburg. In front of me there is a sign for Strasburg Railroad. I park the car and watch steam engine pulling the old style wooden carriages. They tell me that this train goes to Paradise, a small town few miles away. I buy a ticket to Paradise and board the train. It passes through farmland and I again see Amish families from a distance. I look out and see the barns, houses and fields, as they may have been 200 years ago. This is the way the American lived in the last century. It is remarkable that such communities can exist in America. Perhaps it is possible only in America. The train makes a brief stop in Paradise and then returns to Strasburg.
The sun is about to go down. It is already dusk with a defused glow on the horizon over the fertile fields in Lancaster County. I can now understand that human happiness does not depend on a big house, an expensive car or a huge bank balance. If the Amish people can live and be happy in simple environments without any modern amenities then I can be happy in my life too. My journey to the American past has come to an end at Strasburg train station and it is time to go home.
(The author resides in Delaware, USA; e-mail: nhassa@ yahoo.com)